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Uganda: Gay and Vilified in Uganda

Publication Date: 
December 22, 2011

WHEN Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced this month that the United States would use diplomacy to encourage respect for gay rights around the world, my heart leapt. I knew her words — “gay people are born into, and belong to, every society in the world”— to be true, but in my country they are too often ignored.

The right to marry whom we love is far from our minds. Across Africa, the “gay rights” we are fighting for are more stark — the right to life itself. Here, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people suffer brutal attacks, yet cannot report them to the police for fear of additional violence, humiliation, rape or imprisonment at the hands of the authorities. We are expelled from school and denied health care because of our perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. If your boss finds out (or suspects) you are gay, you can be fired immediately.

People are outed in the media — or if they have gay friends, they are assumed to be “gay by association.” More benignly, if people are still single by the time they reach their early 20s, what Ugandans call a “marriage age,” others will begin to suspect that they are gay.

Traditional culture silences open discussion of sexuality. I am 29. I grew up in a very observant Catholic family in the suburbs of Kampala. From the time I was old enough to have romantic feelings, I knew I was gay, but we weren’t supposed to speak of such things.

When I was 14, I came out to my brother. Later, when others close to me asked if I was gay, I didn’t deny it. Though some relatives accepted me, I came out to the rest of my family slowly. Some simply chose to ignore the fact that I was gay, or begged me not to tell anyone, fearing I’d shame our family name. Others stopped speaking to me altogether.

Many Africans believe that homosexuality is an import from the West, and ironically they invoke religious beliefs and colonial-era laws that are foreign to our continent to persecute us.

The way I see it, homophobia — not homosexuality — is the toxic import. Thanks to the absurd ideas peddled by American fundamentalists, we are constantly forced to respond to the myth — debunked long ago by scientists — that homosexuality leads to pedophilia. For years, the Christian right in America has exported its doctrine to Africa, and, along with it, homophobia. In Uganda, American evangelical Christians even held workshops and met with key officials to preach their message of hate shortly before a bill to impose the death penalty for homosexual conduct was introduced in Uganda’s Parliament in 2009. Two years later, despite my denunciation of all forms of child exploitation, David Bahati, the legislator who introduced the bill, as well as Foreign Minister Henry Okello Oryem and other top government officials, still don’t seem to grasp that being gay doesn’t equate to being a pedophile.

In May, following criticism from the West and President Yoweri Museveni, the bill wasshelved. But the current parliament has revived it and could send it to the floor for a vote at any time. Meanwhile, the bill’s influence has been felt in Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon, all of which have recently stepped up enforcement of anti-gay laws or moved to pass new legislation that would criminalize love between people of the same sex.

Not all Ugandans are homophobic. Some say there are more pressing issues to worry about than gay people and believe we should have the same rights as anyone else. But they are not in power and cannot control the majority who want to hurt us.

A veil of silence enforced by thuggish street violence and official criminalization is falling over much of Africa. Being a gay activist is a sacrifice. You have to carefully choose which neighborhood to live in. You cannot go shopping on your own, let alone go clubbing or to parties. With each public appearance you risk being attacked, beaten or arrested by the police.

I remember the moment when my friend David Kato, Uganda’s best-known gay activist, sat with me in the small unmarked office of our organization, Sexual Minorities Uganda. “One of us will probably die because of this work,” he said. We agreed that the other would then have to continue. In January, because of this work, David was bludgeoned to deathat his home, with a hammer. Many people urged me to seek asylum, but I have chosen to remain and fulfill my promise to David — and to myself. My life is in danger, but the lives of those whose names are not known in international circles are even more vulnerable.

Still, I continue to hope. There are encouraging times when my fellow activists and I meet people face to face and they realize we aren’t the child-molesting monsters depicted in the media. They realize we are human, we are Ugandan, just like them.

Standing on David’s shoulders, we are no longer alone. Political leaders like Mrs. Clinton and religious leaders like Archbishop Desmond Tutu are willing to publicly state that being gay is just one of many expressions of what it means to be human. I call on other leaders — particularly my African-American brothers and sisters in politics, entertainment and religious communities — to come to Uganda, to stand with me and my fellow advocates, to help dispel harmful myths perpetuated by ignorance and hate. The lives of many are on the line.

Frank Mugisha, the 2011 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award laureate, is the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda.